One of the last things John Q. Hammons said to Jackie Stiles was “3,393.”
Stiles had to think about it a second, until a broad smile crossed her face. That number was her NCAA record career point total as an All-America guard at Missouri State, and that it meant this much to the billionaire hotel developer whose life was celebrated on Tuesday in a building that bears his initials on campus, the JQH Center, still astounds Stiles.
“Can you believe that?” Stiles said. “I was unbelievably fortunate to call him a friend.”
Hammons died on May 26 at age 94 and those who paid tribute to Hammons, especially from the sports world, felt the same.
What emerged on Tuesday was a portrait of a man who lived for work and play, or more accurately, watch and create opportunities and venues for others to play.
In college athletics philanthropy, a case can be made that Hammons, the southwest Missouri native whose net worth was estimated at more than $1 billion in 2011, has been to Missouri State what Nike founder Phil Knight is to Oregon, or T. Boone Pickens — who called Hammons a friend — to Oklahoma State.
Springfield could very well be named Hammonsville.
Near Missouri State’s 11,000-seat basketball arena, built with his $30 million contribution, sits Hammons Field, the $32.5 million home of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class AA team and the Bears’ baseball team.
Around town is the Hammons Heart Institute, the Hammons Life Line helicopter, the Hammons Student Center, the Hammons Fountains, the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University and the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts at Missouri State, named for his wife.
“I was part of Missouri State for 47 years, and I know a lot of people have done a lot of great things for the university, Springfield and the region,” former Missouri State athletic director Bill Rowe said. “But if you asked people who had the greatest impact on this region, in terms of giving, it would be a unanimous vote.”
Rowe accompanied Hammons on site visits before building the arena and ballpark. They visited colleges and minor-league stadiums because Hammons wanted to build the best facilities.
When it came to the ballpark, there was additional motive: Hammons loved the Cardinals and wanted to bring their Class AA team to his adopted hometown. He visited with the team’s brass and offered to build a baseball palace if the Cards agreed to relocate their minor-league team from Tennessee. There was no guarantee.
“It was, ‘If you built it, theymight
come,’” Springfield Cardinals general manager Matt Gifford said. “But he built it, and the Cardinals came to visit, and it was the best ballpark in minor-league baseball.”
Hammons didn’t have a favorite team in Kansas City, but he had a sports connection there. The Senior PGA Tour event had run its course at Loch Lloyd and was about to leave the region. But Hammons came to its financial rescue with a four-year contract through 2002 at the new Tiffany Greens Golf Course.
But there was a hitch. There was no clubhouse.
“It had to be built in six months,” said Jerald Andrews, president and executive director of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. “And it was.”
The Hall of Fame is in Springfield because of Hammons. The idea to honor Missouri athletes and sports personalities originated in Columbia. Former Tigers coach Norm Stewart and Missouri basketball legend Gary Filbert were part of a group that wanted to create a Hall of Fame for state basketball. Columbia College was going to donate space, but funding was needed.
Hammons was on board, but soon realized there wouldn’t be enough room in the space and expanding would be expensive. He decided to start from scratch in Springfield and include all sports, and the doors opened in 1994.
His Hall of Fame interest crossed the state line.
In 2005, the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in Wichita was suffering financially and close to shutting its doors. Stiles, who grew up in Claflin, Kan., was approached by the hall to gauge Hammons’ interest in helping.
This was an awkward moment.
“I used to get hit up by people who knew I was friends with him, but I was very protective of our friendship,” said Stiles, an assistant coach for the Bears women’s basketball team. “Still, I was willing to say, ‘Look, we don’t have these kinds of conversations, and whatever you say won’t affect our friendship.’”
That year, Hammons donated $800,000 to keep the Kansas hall afloat.
On the surface, their friendship seemed odd, Hammons was almost 60 years older. But Stiles, who used to shoot 1,000 jump shots a day, saw a common trait.
“Where we really connected was work ethic,” she said. “What made him really happy was working, and I was always the same way. His passions were work and sports.”
Until he could no longer travel, about four years ago, Hammons didn’t miss a NCAA Final Four or a Cincinnati Reds’ spring training camp for more than 50 years. He loved his Cardinals, but his first hotel development business started in Cincinnati in 1961, and, well, nobody said he couldn’t have two favorite teams.
And Stiles was his favorite athlete.
Through the years, Hammons would send Stiles and her family cards on holidays, make hotel reservations for Stiles at one of his hotels and have a gift basket waiting. Others who spoke on Tuesday shared similar stories of generosity and thoughtfulness that weren’t part of Hammons' public persona.
Long after the tributes, Hammons will remain in the news because of controversy surrounding his wealth. He had no children and there are no obvious heirs. The Springfield News-Leader reported that Hammons or his company were the subject of four lawsuits, and the one that gained the most attention was filed in 2011 by friends who had been blocked from seeing him and concerned he wasn’t being cared for properly as his health declined.
Stiles returned to her alma mater in April after spending last year as an assistant at Loyola Marymount, and her last visit with Hammons came before leaving for Los Angeles.
“I had heard his health had been slipping, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Stiles said.
Then she heard her career point total for a final memory between friends.